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Mystic developer's past charges surface; town officials expect no impact to project

Groton — Town Manager John Burt said the town recently became aware, through a letter it received, of charges from 2004 involving the developer of a proposed mixed-use village at the Mystic Education Center when he was operating a plumbing company in New York.

Burt said at this point, the misdemeanor incident from more than 15 years ago does not impact the project.

“Of course, we take any known impropriety seriously,” Burt said. “We looked into it. I had a long discussion with Mr. (Jeffrey) Respler. He answered all the questions I had satisfactorily.”

“I have all the faith in Respler Homes and Mr. Respler,” added Burt, who said he wouldn’t want an old misdemeanor to derail the project.  

Respler Homes was selected in 2019 as the preferred developer for the state-owned property and proposed a mixed-use village with a commercial hub, housed in the Mystic Oral School building, and apartments. The project has drawn vocal criticism from neighboring residents, as well as support from the Town Council and other supporters.

Recently, a lawyer representing four Mystic residents sent Burt a letter that included an April 2005 news release issued by The City of New York Department of Investigation, which referenced a plea agreement in which Jeffrey Respler, as the owner of Plumbing Solutions, pleaded guilty in New York in 2004 to four counts of fifth-degree conspiracy, a Class A misdemeanor. He agreed to pay a $75,000 fine to the state of New York, pay $300,000 for a trust for employees’ wage claims and pay $360,000 to the Plumbers Union Local 1 Trade Education Fund, the release states. Plumbing Solutions had three contracts with the city, worth $7.2 million, to install water meters, and the contracts were suspended in March 2004, the release states. 

According to the release, the counts of fifth-degree conspiracy stem from allegedly paying bribes to two employees of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection — $10,000 to direct more work to the company and $30,000 to expedite inspections of water meter installations; allegedly paying an individual to use a plumbing license in false documents filed with the city; allegedly filing statements with the city “that falsely indicated he was paying his workers the appropriate wages for the hours they worked,” and in relation to an alleged “fraudulent real estate transaction” between him and the plumber’s union. 

The same news release announced that the two city employees who accepted the bribes also pleaded guilty to charges. The individual who allegedly was paid $300 a week to allow Plumbing Solutions to falsely claim he “was the company’s legitimately licensed Master Plumber” and allegedly was not a majority owner in the company, was charged and was due in court in April 2005.

The release cites that former New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer and staff and John McGlynn, regional inspector general for the United States Department of Labor Office of Labor Racketeering at the time, handled the matter. The City of New York Department of Investigation's inspector general for DEP, John Kantor, and staff conducted the investigation.

Respler responds to charges 

Respler, who contacted The Day to address the charges, said one day agents suddenly barged into his office, took all the computers and boxes and cleaned everything out. He later learned there was a larger investigation by Spitzer’s office into the plumbers union.

Plumbing Solutions had contracts to install water meters in New York City, and the city's DEP needed to inspect and sign off on each installation. Respler said his company had hired an individual to set up and coordinate schedules for appointments with the DEP representatives, and unbeknownst to him or the company, the employee was giving loans to city employees which later were paid back. Respler said he was told by authorities that as the owner of the company, he had to accept responsibility for the bribes.

Respler said he denies the accusation that he inflated the price of a building and kicked back money to the union president.

Respler said the union wanted to buy a building that he had purchased during the city’s housing crisis and fixed up. He said the building, which he was partially using for his office and did not want to sell, was fireproof, and the union wanted it as a school for their students so they could conduct welding. He eventually agreed to sell the building, which he said was at fair market price and required multiple union representatives to sign off on and the involvement of lawyers.

He also said he properly paid his employees.

Respler further said he had a licensed plumber who owned 51% of the company, which was required, and could make decisions for the company. But Respler said the investigators took issue with the fact that the plumber was not receiving 51% of the company’s profits. He said the plumber was paid a salary.

Though Respler denied the accusations, he said his assets were frozen during the four- or five-month investigation, and he had no money and was behind on his rent and couldn’t pay his bills. “We ran out of cash, couldn’t pay any of the suppliers,” he said. “The employees weren’t paid for a few weeks.”

Respler said his criminal defense attorney advised him to take the plea agreement, or investigators would continue the investigation for longer to try to find something, and he wouldn’t even be able to afford his lawyer.

Respler said after pleading guilty, the money was released and the company was able to begin operating again, and he finished contracts with the city and the state. He later decided to pursue real estate development, with projects in New York, Connecticut and New Jersey.

“It really has nothing to do with this project,” Respler said. He is scheduled to discuss the project with The Day's Editorial Board on Thursday.

Attorney Edward E. Moukawsher, who represents Mystic residents Rosanne Kotowski, a Representative Town Meeting member; Robert Welt; Scott Westervelt; and John Goodrich, filed Freedom of Information requests regarding the project on behalf of his clients. In the letter to the town, he said the developer has missed timelines outlined in an agreement with the Town Council.

The clients are opposed to the project and referred questions about the charges to their lawyer.

Moukawsher provided information about the news release to the town, though he said he was unable to determine if the Jeffrey Respler in the news release was the same as the developer. He said by phone that when one of his clients came across the 2005 news release, he said he felt it was important for the town to have the information and urged the town to look into it. Moukawsher said there was concern that the town was going to be put in a bad position by the developer.

Burt said that once he received the letter, he spoke with Respler, who explained the circumstances, and Respler readily agreed to a criminal background check. Burt said the background check did not show anything. He said the misdemeanor charges did not appear due to a New York policy when there is a single misdemeanor conviction more than 10 years ago.

Burt said the project is awaiting the zoning process before other steps can be completed and the purpose of the timelines set in the development agreement are for the town to enforce, if it finds a need to. 

During the selection process, Burt said the focus was on searches of the company’s background and calling references about the company. Burt said the request for proposals did not seek criminal background questions about a candidate. He said the proposal is still in the early stages, and the town typically would check credit and general background information before entering into a tax increment financing agreement.

After receiving the letter, Burt also contacted the state Department of Economic and Community Development about the matter, which Jim Watson, spokesperson for the DECD, said is under review. Burt said he will be speaking with the state on Thursday.

Respler Homes executed a lease agreement with the state, as well as a purchase and sale agreement, which calls for selling the property for $1 if conditions are met, according to the state.

A committee of representatives from Groton and the state reviewed and vetted the proposals for the state-owned property, according to the town’s website. 

With the addition of another 16-acre property, which would allow roadway improvements and hold executive-style housing, the project calls for about 931 units, though the conceptual proposal still has to go through multiple local approval steps, starting with a text amendment for the zoning of the property.

Responding to concerns over the size of the proposal, Respler recently said that he is open to discussing with the town potentially seeking approval for a text change for an initial project for roughly 330 residential units and first building that out before seeking further approvals. 

k.drelich@theday.com

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